Can you boost student motivation with your tone of voice?

Student motivation clearly plays a fundamental part in how much they learn. But what impact does the tone of our voice play? Could it be that it is not just what we say, but how we say it that impacts student motivation?

Recent research suggests that your tone of voice can affect all three core components of motivation proposed by Self-Determination Theory, potentially making a big difference throughout the year. This blog explores how exactly…

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What is Self-Determination Theory? A quick recap

Self-Determination Theory states that students require three psychological needs met to be motivated:

  • Autonomy – Feeling in control of their behaviours and goals
  • Competence – Believing their actions will make a difference in shaping their academic success
  • Relatedness – Feeling a sense of belonging in class

Now, let’s take a look at how a teacher’s tone of voice influences these components of motivation for students…

What the research says

One recent study had 250 students to listen to pre-recorded voices of teachers, who spoke in either a controlling, neutral or encouraging tone of voice. They then were told to imagine that the teacher was personally speaking to them and then note how it would make them feel.

The results found that students who heard a controlling voice reported lower autonomy, competence and relatedness than those who heard a neutral voice. They also reported lower self-esteem and well-being, as well as feeling less willing to open up to their teachers. In contrast, those who heard an encouraging tone of voice reported greater autonomy and relatedness.

How does tone of voice affect motivation in class?

So, the research suggests it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that will impact on how students feel in class. But why is this the case? We think there may be three potential factors at play…

More supportive teacher-student relationships

From the research, we can see that controlling voices make students less willing to disclose important information to their teachers. This means that teachers may struggle to provide necessary guidance and support to students who are facing challenges impacting their well-being.

During challenging times, your students’ minds may be preoccupied with negative feelings more than the content of a lesson, making them less willing to engage. However, an encouraging tone of voice cultivates positive teacher-student relationships, which increases students’ engagement and enhances their sense of belonging – two essential elements that keep students motivated.

More effective behaviour management

A controlling voice, though occasionally required, if done too much has the potential to lower students’ feeling of competence. For example, if your students don’t feel that they can achieve their goals, then they may feel like there’s no point in them trying or listening to your instructions.

Other research suggests that giving genuine and specific praise improves behaviour. This motivates your students to repeat constructive learning behaviours and become more successful learners. The more they achieve, the more motivated they’ll be to keep on going… then the cycle continues!

Developing psychological safety in your classroom

A psychologically safe classroom is one where your students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and being themselves without fear of judgement or humiliation. An encouraging tone of voice helps to foster a supportive learning environment by boosting students’ sense of relatedness and autonomy. But since a controlling tone of voice lowers students’ psychological needs, this can deplete their overall motivation and make them more hesitant to engage in class.

Research has shown that students who learn in a psychologically safe environment were more persistent when doing educational tasks compared to those who learn in an environment with low psychological safety. So, feeling comfortable in class boosts student motivation and makes students willing to put in the effort.

Final thoughts

Tone of voice it appears does have a significant impact on your students’ motivation. Specifically, a controlling voice diminishes student autonomy, competence and relatedness, while an encouraging tone fosters positive relationships, engagement and belonging.

By adopting an uplifting tone, you can create a productive environment where your students can engage as well as feel comfortable seeking guidance and support. So, although there is more to student motivation than your tone of voice alone, being mindful of it can make a difference to the motivation levels of your students.

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